What is a heart attack?
A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to part of the heart muscle itself - the myocardium - is severely reduced or stopped. The reduction or stoppage happens when one or more of the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle is blocked. This is usually caused by the buildup of plaque (deposits of fat-like substances), a process called atherosclerosis. The plaque can eventually burst, tear or rupture, creating a "snag" where a blood clot forms and blocks the artery. This leads to a heart attack.
If the blood supply is cut off for more than a few minutes, muscle cells suffer permanent injury and die. This can kill or disable someone, depending on how much heart muscle is damaged.
Sometimes a coronary artery temporarily contracts or goes into spasm. When this happens the artery narrows and blood flow to part of the heart muscle decreases or stops. We're not sure what causes a spasm. A spasm can occur in normal-appearing blood vessels as well as in vessels partly blocked by atherosclerosis. A severe spasm can cause a heart attack.
The medical term for heart attack is myocardial infarction. A heart attack is also sometimes called a coronary thrombosis or coronary occlusion.
What Are the Warning Signs of Heart Attack?
Heart and blood vessel disease is our nation's No. 1 killer. About half of the deaths from heart and blood vessel disease are from coronary heart disease, which includes heart attack. About 325,000 people a year die of coronary attack before they get to a hospital or in the emergency room. But many of those deaths can be prevented - by acting fast! Some heart attacks are sudden and intense. But most start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Here are some of the signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:
Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw orstomach.
Shortness of breath. This may occur with or without chest discomfort.
Other signs. These may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
As with men, women's most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, articularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
What should I do if I suspect a heart attack?
- Don't wait more than five minutes before calling for help. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency medical services (EMS) such as the fire department or ambulance. Get to a hospital right away.
- If you're the one having symptoms, and you can't access the EMS, have someone drive you to the hospital right away. Don't drive yourself,unless you have absolutely no other option.
What else can I do?
- I f you're properly trained and it's necessary, you can give CPR (mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing and chest compressions) to a victim until help arrives.
- Before there's an emergency, it's a good idea to find out which hospitals in your area have 24-hour emergency cardiac care. Also, keep a list of emergency phone numbers next to your phone and with you at all times, just in case. Take these steps NOW.
Why don't people act fast enough?
Half of all people having a heart attack wait more than two hours before getting help. Some people feel it would be embarrassing to have a "false alarm." Others are so afraid of having a heart attack that they tell themselves they aren't having one. These feelings are easy to understand, but they're also very dangerous. If you or someone close to you shows signs of a heart attack, call 911 and get help right away!
How can I help to avoid a heart attack?
- Don't smoke, and avoid other people's tobacco smoke.
- Treat high blood pressure if you have it.
- Eat foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and salt.
- Be physically active.
- Keep your weight under control.
- Get regular medical check-ups.
- Take medicine as prescribed.
- Control your blood sugar if you have diabetes.